Eight American Cultural Traits

After writing about both Russian and German cultural traits, its only fair that I also address those of my own home country. T.S. Elliot wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” After living abroad for the greater half of a decade, I can now reflect back on my homeland with a new perspective.


1. Optimistic

The author John Steinbeck once noted that even the poorest of Americans tend to see themselves as only being temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Whether its from patenting some new invention, being drafted by the LA Lakers, having a hit rap album or winning the lottery, many Americans believe that success is just around the corner. As the lyrics of the hit Broadway Musical Annie states:

The sun will come out tomorrow
Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow
There’ll be sun

Unfortunately, many Americans get convinced to forfeit their last “bottom dollar” on a mortgage or student loans for a tomorrow that is “always a day away.” I have previously written both on avoiding the American dept trap, as well as how to escape it.

Most Americans were born after America’s post WWII economic boom, a time period where generally everything has always seemed to be on the up and up. The majority of Americans alive today have never personally experienced war or lived through a complete societal collapse such as what took place in the former Soviet Union. Although the nation continues to become richer as a whole, rapidly growing wealth inequality is creating a growing discontent and shaking many citizen’s fundamental belief in the “American Dream.”

The primary benefit of those who subscribe to American optimism is that they are more likely to put their first foot forward, take a risk and try something new. The first step to achieving any dream is to take action and make a honest effort. Having an initially optimism about the results makes Americans more willing to take those critical first steps. Additionally, optimistic people are happier people in general.


2. Individualistic

In American films, there is normally one hero who stands out from the rest. The lone cowboy who rides in to save the day. The quarterback who scores the winning touchdown. The detective who chooses to unnecessarily risk his life in the name of justice. In America, we often contribute massive successes such as Apple and Microsoft to single individuals such as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, when in reality they were the collective result of large teams of people. These are the heroes of American folklore.

Americans believe that given a fair playing field, each person should be entitled to the fruits of their own labor. Having an incentive structure that rewards an individual’s hard work contributed greatly to the country’s success. However, by playing on the American values of fairness and personal responsibility, many politicians convince their constituents to vote against any forms of collective welfare and in doing so also their own best interests. By investing in the general welfare of our nation up to a certain point, we could incur a net savings in tax dollars which would only otherwise later be spent dealing with preventable crises.


3. Money Focused

This is not to say that all Americans are wealth driven, or that money ranks above all else. But in general, American’s more highly prioritize earning money than those of other nationalities. However, this may partially be because Americans, unlike most Europeans, need to purchase their own security and can’t rely on government benefits. So an American may not be chasing money for money’s sake, but instead desire the basic level of security that comes with it.

Americans often measure success in dollars. The first question an American usually asks another person is: “what do you do?” Which directly translates to: “how do you make money?” I had a Swedish man once tell me how he liked American’s broad-mindedness on ways to make a living. In Sweden, he was taught that he must work for a living. But in the USA, if you can legally make a lot of money doing something that’s a bit atypical and inventive, then more power to you. He said that making money as a professional poker was deemed much more acceptable in the USA than back home in Sweden.


4. Hard-Working

Most Europeans do not realize that it is normal for the average full time employed American to work nearly 50 hours per week, and have a maximum of two weeks of vacation a year. Even those employed in what are considered traditionally good careers, such as doctors and engineers, can easily work up to sixty hours a week on a fixed salary. In finance, the hours can be even longer. While a professional American’s take home salary is most likely higher than his European counterparts, they are a bit less impressive if calculated in terms of an hourly rate. Especially when you factor in benefits and the fact that the typical German or Italian has six weeks of paid vacation per year.

The word “hustler” in American English is often used positively to describe someone who makes things happen. American culture is competitive, and employees may try to prove their worth by outworking each other. A person who consistently stays late at work every night is seen as a valuable team player who is “burning the midnight oil.” While in Germany, such an employee may be considered incompetent for not finishing their work during the normal work day, or their manager could be charged with overburdening them.


5. Comfortable with Risk.

When you grow up in a country of relative abundance, a person naturally feels that they have much less to lose, and that there is always another opportunity just around the corner. From early on, bankruptcy laws in the United States were more lenient than in other countries. In America, it common to give a person a second chance. Being able to get up after a hard defeat, brush yourself off and trying again is a personality trait that is highly praised in US culture.


6. Polite / Consumer Friendly

In the USA, the customer is always right. In a competitive market, it is important to keep your clients happy to prevent them from going somewhere else. As a potential customer, you are likely to be served with politeness and smile, even if it is forced. Service staff at US restaurants are also often paid low wages and must live off their tips, which only provides a further incentive for them to be extra polite to you.

Many Americans will often bend or sugarcoat the truth in certain situations to avoid hurting other people’s feelings. Rather than directly saying something negative, they will talk around the issue or make an excuse. Directly rejecting a person’s invitation or proposal is considered rude. Thus sometimes it will be necessary to probe an American further to find out their actual opinion. In other cases, they will loudly share their opinions without you even asking.


7. Open

Most foreigners to the United States are surprised about how open Americans are to meeting and helping new people. It is normal in the United States to strike up a conversation with strangers on public transportation or while waiting for your flight in an airport bar. Before traveling, I never realized how uniquely American that this initial openness to strangers is. You may also be surprised by how soon after meeting you that an American will share what you deem to be as very personal information.

The United States is a country settled by immigrants who came from all around the world and had to learn to live and work together. The country is also a very large nation, and many citizen relocate multiple times through out their life. Thus the American culture of openness makes it easier for people to make new acquaintances after moving to a new city for work or studies.


8. Freedom (depending on how you specifically define it)

Most Americans believe that they are living in the freest nation in the world, and do not seem aware that many other nations have now come to guarantee their own citizens many of these same freedoms. In America, a person’s right to free speech is still one of the strongest protections of its kind in the world. However, it also protects those who may want to slander your reputation for either personal, financial or even simply entertainment purposes.

Americans are currently guaranteed neither the right to an affordable education or healthcare. But they are free to take out a hundred thousand dollars in student loans before even declaring a major. Loans that banking institutions in some foreign lands would deem too irresponsible to even approve. They are also free to choose which extra part time job that they want to work that provides the healthcare benefits they need to be able to afford their child’s medication. Depending on the state, while it may be against the law for a bar to sell you alcohol after 2 AM, you are free to bring your gun inside. The point being that the amount of freedom that one experiences in the United States is relative to their personal needs and desires.

The ease with which any person can start a business or find employment is one of the greatest benefits of living in the United States. However, the same ease by which a company can hire you for a job they can also fire you. In the United States you have the freedom to achieve both great success or failure.

The US is a great place for ambitious, talented, hard-working people who know what they want and how to get it. However, its also becoming a place where it is becoming harder and harder for those who start with a disadvantage to be able to catch up. This is a great shame given how the society was originally founded to be a meritocracy where one’s circumstances of birth should not alone determine their social mobility.

Although new cultural norms are funneling people towards living unhealthy lifestyles, condoning misinformation and promoting indifference, as Americans we still have freedom of choice. We need to use this freedom to vote using our voices, dollars and coveted attention spans in order to preserve the better of our founding ideals.

Related Articles:

Eight German Cultural Traits

Eight Russian Cultural Traits

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